We traveled on the Island Princess over the New Year's holiday, completing a "bucket list" item of seeing the Panama Canal.
The Island Princess departed on Sunday, the 30th, along with five other cruise ships. Port Everglades was mobbed. We dropped our rental car off at the Avis located in the Port, and there were about 50 other customers waiting to board their shuttle bus that holds about 12 people. We found a cab, but with the traffic and security checks, it still took about 30 minutes to go about three miles. When we arrived at our terminal, it was a very crowded as we expected at 12:30, which was the initial boarding time. It took about an hour to go through check in and security and board the ship. HINT: If you do not want to stand in line, arrive at the ship after 2 PM for a 4 PM departure. There was no line in sight at that time. We were about an hour late departing the Port and it appeared that the five cruise ships in Port had the same departure time. Therefore, the "sail-away" party was concluded before we left the dock.
Our itinerary called for two sea days before arriving in Aruba. The seas and wind were very rough. In fact, our cruise director, Richard Joseph, said it was the roughest he has seen it in two years. We were luckier than other passengers, and spared illness. Princess did a nice job with the New Year's Eve celebrations, which was a formal night. There were many choices...we experienced the Atrium and the Lido deck. The Atrium had a balloon drop and more classic entertainment. We stayed there until 11:30 and headed for the Lido deck, outdoor party. For just raining and being windy, there was a good, generally younger crowd. The cover band ICON was quite good throughout the cruise and DJ Mikey kept the crowd going. Streamers were handed out and thrown over string that was stretched over the upper deck. We danced until 1:30 AM, when the crowd started to retire. There was also a beautiful buffet on the Lido Deck.
I will cover the ports and excursions separately in the port review section, but here is my overall observations of the cruise:
PASSENGERS: On this cruise, it appeared the majority of passengers were over 65 years of age and retired. There are a lot of "slow walkers". Very few children on this cruise. The passengers are not as "well-heeled" as on Celebrity. Formal nights were most surprising. There were only a handful of men in tuxes or women in truly formal dresses. Most men were in sport coats and women in a casual dress. If you are looking for a more active or energetic cruise, this is not for you. We felt young at 56 and 58 years of age.
FOOD: I don't expect much when feeding large groups, but the food quality was poor. We had anytime dining in the Bordeaux dining room. It did not matter...veal, chicken, beef...everything tasted the same. The only exception was the lobster. Don't bother with the NY strip steak, which everyone complained about at our table of ten. One fellow passenger equated the food with a high school cafeteria, and she was right. The Horizon Buffet suffered the same fate. The speciality restaurants were empty whenever we walked past them, and in ten days we did not talk to any fellow passengers who went to one.
ENTERTAINMENT: We went to a few production shows which were good, the dancers much superior to the singers. "On the Bayou" had some fancy costumes. It was held in the Universal Theater and as a hint...arrive at least a half hour before show time. It's not as large as the Princess Theater and much of the seating is obstructed. "Piano Man" was also good in the Princess Theater. Hypnotist Kellie Karl was OK, but some of her subjects reacted so extremely, that you had to wonder if they were plants. "That 50's Night" was fun with a twist and hulahoop contest. Comedy Vocalist Diane Cousins was awful...we left; but believe it or not, not as awful as Billy Vader. I fell asleep after a few minutes. My husband said he lost track of his "jokes" and he kept repeating himself. We enjoyed the activities with the Cruise Director Staff: The Yes/No Gameshow, The Liar's Club, The International Crew Show, Peer Factor, and The Ultimate Deck Party. We also played some bingo and some difficult trivia. For the production shows...the 8 PM shows are the most crowded and you have to arrive early.
SERVICE: The Cruise Director Staff was wonderful, mainly Mark and Toby. They are full of energy, and we were amazed how many hours of the day they are up and about. Our cabin steward was polite and had our room cleaned the minute we left for breakfast. However, this was our first cruise where I have to say the dining room staff was not up to par. Normally, the wait staff jokes and engage with the passengers. Yes, there were a few who did, but the majority were just doing their job, not enjoying their job. Not that I blame them as it has to be grueling. One item that disturbed us was the constant selling of products on the ship...even in the Horizon Buffet, there was selling of a Princess cookbook conducted table-to-table by a member of the wait staff. At every opportunity, Princess was trying to sell something. The spa was the worse in the selling of product. After a relaxing massage, you are then in for the hard sell.
THE SHIP OVERALL: The Island Princess is in need an overhaul. It's getting tired and worn. While generally clean, it's a little shabby and neglected. The linens are getting thin, the windows were dirty, paint is sorely needed on the exterior of the ship, and a horrible sewer smell was present, especially in the aft areas of the ship. Also, there is a problem with the air conditioning on this ship. The entire cruise, we had the thermostat on the coolest setting possible, and the room was never really cool and humidity free. While the ship is in Alaska, the air may work, but not in hot and humid Panama. Princess excels at port lectures and Barb and Bill were wonderful. We attended every port lecture and they were very informative. They did a wonderful job talking about the Panama Canal while we were going thru it.
DISEMBARKING: An unorganized mess. We opted for the self help off option. We had the first time in the group that met in the casino. The problem was that no one stayed in the casino awaiting the call to leave. The passengers hovered around the exit door, which resulted in the elevators and walkways being blocked. Hint to Princess...make everyone stay in the casino and not around the exit door. That way the elevators will not be blocked and people getting off the elevators can walk freely. It was a mess. We waited quite a while in customs, so don't scheudle your flight before 10:30 am.
OTHER HINTS: Bring a power strip as there is only one outlet that is accessable. We purchased 36 hangers ($6.00 at Target) and they really helped us organize the cabin. Use the internet very early or very late. The service is very slow during busy times. At 75 cents a minute, you want to speed things up. Bring your own soap as the ship has cheap, small bad smelling bars. We purchased our cruise two weeks before sailing. We went thru cruisecompete.com. After registering, we had seven travel agents respond to our request with their pricing. We saved hundreds compared to the Princess website pricing. Booking at the last minute did not give us a choice in our cabin and we had to take an interior room, midship on level 10. However, it worked out fine on this cruise. We were rarely in the room, and with rough seas, being midship was a blessing.
The port review section did not include a Panama Canal section, so here is my review of the Panama Canal:
PANAMA CANAL: We did not take an excursion here, but stayed on the ship for the partial passage. We had sight of the Gatun Locks at about 5:30 AM from the Horizon Buffet. This area has windows that look out of the front of the ship. NOTE: We arrived here at 5 AM for front row seating at a table. If you arrive any later, you will not secure a seat by the window. We personally witnessed two arguments when people tried to cut in front of the folks who arrived early. We sat here versus outside as there is always a chance of rain...and sure enough, it did rain. We actually entered the lock about 6:30, as advertised the night before. The narration of the passage from Barb and Bill was wonderful. They explained everything that was going on...and there is quite a bit of action. The locks and the whole operation are truly a manmade miracle. We were in the lock system for an hour and a half. A reminder that if you do not take an excursion and remain on the ship, you will only complete one lock system in the Panama Canal. After exiting the Gatum Locks, you will anchor in Gatum Lock. (Those on excursions will travel by tender to shore for buses to their excursions. There is an excursion for $179 that provides a ferry boat to take you thru the entire Panama Canal. There are three locks systems total if you complete the entire canal. You then take an hour and a half bus ride from the outskirts of Panama City back to the ship.) We remained in Gatum Lake until 11 am and then did a return passage through the same Gatun Lock. We arrived in Colon about 3:30. We got off the ship here and there is a small shopping area called Colon 2000 as soon as you exit the ship. There is not much here...a restaurant, a casino where Spanish only is spoken, a Raddison Hotel, and few electronic stores, a dollar-like store, and a Subway. We were warned not to venture outside of this shopping area. We picked up all the passengers who were on excursions and left Colon at about 5 PM. About half the passengers took excursions...the other half remained on the ship. You will be amazed how many ships are anchored waiting for their time slot. There are 60 shops waiting for 40 slots a day. The cruise lines pay a hefty surcharge for definite times of passage. The Panama Canal was the reason we picked this particular cruise...it did not disappoint.
This was our second Princess cruise...for the second time we chose Princess on their itinerary and ports. But for a cruise itself, we would choose Celebrity all day long.